The Tunisian model
WITH a peaceful presidential vote on Sunday, Tunisia has completed its successful transition to a democracy, a journey that started with the ouster of Ben Ali in the wake of self-immolation of Mohammad Bouazizi four years ago. The success in Tunisia has saved the Arab Spring from being written off as a total failure in the pages of history. It also serves to dispel the apprehensions of certain western observers that Arab people are unfit for democracy. A study of the Tunisian model offers impressive insights into why Tunisia has been able to fare better in consolidating gains of the revolution than Egypt and other countries where despotic forces have staged a comeback or remain torn by civil strife.
Two factors helped the smooth functioning of transition arrangements put in place in Tunisia. One concerns the role of military and judiciary in country's politics while the second relates to the nature of political forces at work. The military in Tunisia has been a neutral actor and it kept itself apolitical during the revolution. The courts have also refrained from playing a partisan role in power struggle. Thus the political process in Tunisia functioned free of judicial or army-led interventions. In stark contrast, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces took over power in Egypt after the deposition of Hosni Mubarak. Later, the highest court in Egypt nullified the parliamentary elections as a result of which the Muslim Brotherhood had come into power. Political instability further worsened when army removed the democratically elected president, Mohammad Morsi.
Another factor, the attitude of political forces, has been remarkably significant in determining the future course of 'revolutionary' uprisings in the respective countries. In Tunisia, the Islamists were moderate and did not behave in an intransigent manner like the Muslim Brotherhood did in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood, despite all warnings, enacted laws that aimed at giving supremacy to Sharia in the country and also banned all supporters of the old regime. President Morsi rammed through the Constitution, designed to set the principles of a social contract, despite the boycott of the political opposition, and escalated the level of political confrontation.
The democratic transition in Tunisia on the other hand has been characterised by moderation and compromise. On some occasions, the democratic process came across roadblocks and the country could have plunged into turmoil. The Islamist party, El-Nahada, also known as offshoot of Muslim Brotherhood, captured power after the Ben Ali regime was toppled. But the Islamists here did not insist on imposing their puritanical version of Islam and also took the interests of different communities into account while framing legislation. The framing of the Constitution was an uphill task and it was amicably completed owing to the commitment of the political forces. The Islamists wanted the parliamentary system while the secular forces opted for the presidential system. A compromise was struck and the French model was chosen, with the president to be elected directly and the parliament to be responsible for electing the prime minister. Islam was recognised as the state religion but Sharia was not declared to be the sole source of legislation. Equal rights for men and women were protected and all political forces were allowed to participate.
Likewise, when the demonstrators took to the streets against the killing of two members of the opposition belonging to the leftist party, El-Nahada voluntarily resigned to give way to a neutral interim government to smoothen the path towards elections. In October, the secular party won the largest number of seats in parliamentary elections, rendering the Islamists to the second position. The secularists in Tunisia also showed restraint and did not demand a ban on religious parties, as happened in some other countries. Because of their spirit of accommodation, the secular group has won the presidential slot as well.
But the democratic consolidation process is not yet over for Tunisia and the country has a herculean task ahead, which involves building of institutions. But, in the short term, there are two challenges that require immediate attention. First, despite their majority, the secular group should not completely exclude the Islamist parties from decision-making and push them towards radicalisation. Second, the newly elected government should put all its resources into building the economic base of the country so people could see results of revolution coming to fruition in real terms.
The Tunisian model also has lessons for Pakistan, where democratic project is still in its infancy after the second consecutive election of 2013. Adopting extreme stances or exclusionary approach in politics will get us nowhere. Consensus through constructive dialogue should be the key to resolve all political conflicts. After the PTI has called-off protest, the PML-N should immediately set in motion the mechanism of investigation of electoral rigging allegations and initiate the process of electoral reforms.
The writer is a Rhodes Scholar for Pakistan 2011.
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